Leaving a bad law behind

BY ART CULLEN

The Storm Lake School District above all should be relieved that the Senate voted 85-12 this week voted to dump the No Child Left Behind law that gave our community a black eye and did little to improve student performance beyond what the district already was doing. Storm Lake long has been regarded as a leader in Iowa for teaching immigrant students and lifting their academic performance, but habitually is on a list as “under-performing” in math or reading at some level.

No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan testing Frankenstein created on a bipartisan basis during the administration of President George W. Bush. The idea was to instill accountability in schools. The result was incessant testing, evaluating teachers and students based on those test scores, and threats that the state could come in and take over a local school district if its math scores did not improve sufficiently.

Storm Lake struggled because we have been inundated with wave after wave of immigrants drawn to meatpacking — first Asian, then Latino, then African and now Pacific Islander. Nearly 20 languages are spoken in The City Beautiful’s homes. We would get a wave from rural Mexico up to speed in reading, and then in comes a group from Myanmar with a different set of issues. We were educating students from the nation’s worst schools in East Los Angeles, South Chicago, Miami and Texas. Storm Lake was being judged for the education in Mexico or Texas and not for Storm Lake.

Teachers and administrators, especially in the early going, felt compelled to teach to the test for their own sake and that of the district’s financial viability. Storm Lake used to get extra funding because of NCLB, but there were existential penalties on the back end if you didn’t come through. It’s awful.

While it is true that Storm Lake under-performs in math and reading at certain levels that change every year, it also is true that we over-perform the national average among our best students. So it is not as if we were a district like those in Kansas City that had to be managed by the federal government. We simply are in the business of helping students catch up who have been cheated elsewhere.

Thank goodness, then, that bipartisanship prevailed to repeal No Child Left Behind and replace it with a model — sought by President Obama for eight long years — that allows states the flexibility to find their own ways to reach federal education goals. Testing will remain, but it will be used for demographic information and to identify individual student problems. Under the new law, the Iowa Department of Education will determine how to evaluate district performance and needs, which worked splendidly before NCLB.

The federal government should set education goals. One of the big ones in the new law requires states to make high school students ready for further education in a trades program or a four-year academic track. And it should provide funding so that every state has an equal opportunity — the new legislation appropriates $250 million.

States can manage outcomes better than the federal government. Iowa is not Texas. We have different cultures and requirements. Storm Lake is not the same as Des Moines, and local school boards working with the state can identify their unique needs more precisely.

Everyone but a few college academics hated NCLB. The teachers hated it. The students hated it. So did the school boards and the superintendents. It just took Congress eight years to figure that out. Better late than never.

King, Branstad friction?

Rep. Steve King’s endorsement and Donald Trump’s foul mouth have helped Texas Sen. Ted Cruz vault to the top of the GOP presidential field in Iowa in recent weeks. So it was interesting to see comments by Eric Branstad, the governor’s son, that absolutely thrashed Cruz in The Carroll Times Herald last Friday. “His first hour in the state he came out against the Renewable Fuels Standard,” Branstad told reporter Doug Burns. “It was the first thing out of his mouth. It was like a slap in the face, literally.”

Branstad works for an ethanol trade group, America’s Renewable Future. He notes that Cruz wants to repeal the Renewable Fuels Standard that requires petroleum sellers to blend ethanol into their mix. It reduces air pollution, burns at a higher octane and lessens our reliance on oil from the strife-torn Middle East and Venezuela.

Branstad said Cruz’s “lies” will be exposed through the caucus process. Strong language from the son of a governor who is not endorsing before the caucuses. He would not make these statements, presumably, without consulting the wisdom of his father. When asked who frightens renewable fuels advocates the most, Branstad replied, “It’s definitely Senator Cruz.”

Northwest Iowans, for whom renewable energy is such an important industry, should pay heed not only to Branstad’s warning against Cruz. They also should ask themselves if Steve King is representing their interests with this endorsement. The Branstads might not think so. They would not want to be embarrassed by Cruz winning the caucuses, we would think.